Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tunneling the English Channel (1907)

One of Georges Melies' most prophetic of his pseudo-science fiction efforts, "Tunneling the English Channel" is a delightful combination of political satire and fantasy.

Made in 1907, the film is presented in a lavishly hand-colored print (although the print used for the recent "Melies: First Wizard of Cinema" collection begins with a rather rough, black and white copy and switches to a pristine, hand-colored source about halfway through. This was presumably pieced together from the best surviving elements). The films begins with a sort of split-screen set up, featuring the King of England and the President of France getting ready for bed. As they dream, visions of the building of the tunnel underneath the English channel play out. We see the construction of the tunnel on both the English and French sides, as well as the celebrations following the successful completion of the project. However, their dream turns to a nightmare when disaster strikes as two trains collide in the tunnel, waking both the King and the President from their dream. At this very moment, an engineer comes to see both men with plans to build a channel tunnel, and both leaders forcibly eject him from the scene!

Delightfully stylized moments occur throughout. The set representing the channel tunnel is very elaborate, with sand and silt underneath the tunnel, and the sea itself above, in which we see various submarines, fish, and other aquatic creatures moving about. Melies packs an incredible amount of visual detail into every frame.

Melies' fascination with industry and technology is present throughout. In Melies' narration, written to accompany the film, he goes in to great detail on the scientific and technological details of the construction. In his book "Flickers: A Century of Cinema" (1995), British critic Gilbert Adair notes that, technically speaking, "Tunneling the English Channel" offers a more daring vision of the future than Melies' more famous film, "A Trip to the Moon", in that-while travel to the moon became a reality 67 years after that film's release, the Chunnel did not become a reality until 88 years after the release of this film.

The ending of the film, with both leaders soured on the idea of a tunnel because of their nightmare, leads to a perfect comic close to the whole film. There are some moments of fun political satire throughout, such as the moment when the leaders' respective footmen mock their pompous march in a celebratory parade.

A delightful film on all counts, this lesser-seen Melies title deserves its place among his best work. It is available as part of the "Melies: First Wizard of Cinema" DVD set, available from Flicker Alley, which includes 173 of the cinematic magician's films in pristine copies with the original hand-coloring and narration intact.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rough Sea at Dover (1895)

There is something strangely haunting about this short (very short) actualitie piece shot by Birt Acres and R.W. Paul in what must have been one of their earliest efforts. It provides an interesting contrast to Edison's films in terms of the use of a location. Whereas Edison preferred to showcase a performer, making location a secondary issue of concern strictly for practical purposes, Acres and Paul showcase the sea as a subject in itself.

Shot on an apparently stormy, dour day at a pier at Dover, the filmmakers capture the raw energy made possible by the scope of the subject (the sea would return as a favorite subject for many future films, and its continual movement still possesses a hypnotic quality and a strangely cinematic element, which Griffith used to such good advantage when he shot his first film on the shores of Santa Monica beach nearly 15 years later).

The film also differs from the Edison approach in its use of two shots, one a full view of the pier, and the second a medium shot, taken a little closer to provide a greater detailed view of the waves.

Unfortunately, the surviving print (featured on Kino's "The Movies Begin" DVD set for those interested in seeing it) is in pretty rough condition itself. It would serve as a nice reminder to DVD producers that perhaps another set is in order, consisting of more of these early pioneering efforts from around the world, in order to shed some light on lesser-seen films by people like Acres and Paul.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Caceido with Pole (1894)

On the excellent Kino/MoMA Thomas Edison set, there is a fascinating little film that I've been tempted to write briefly about for some time now.

Titled "Caceido with Pole", and dating from 1894, the film is remarkable for being the first Edison film shot outdoors of the Black Maria. There is something strangely enticing about the film for this reason alone. Without further research, I can't be sure where the film was photographed, precisely, though it was almost certainly either right outside of the Edison lab, or in a very nearby location to Orange, New Jersey.

In many ways, the subject matter and presentation are no different from the countless other early Edison shorts, depicting popular vaudeville and show business figures performing a condensed version of their act before the static Kinetograph. Yet there is something undeniably vibrant, fresh and even cinematic about the performance of Juan Caceido as he performs elaborate leaps and somersaults on a wire.

For some reason, I find this short strip of celluloid both very exciting and also hilariously funny. The "outdoor" location plays a part in both. It's exciting to watch the elaborate tricks of the performance, of course, but it's also fun to see W.K.L. Dickson and William Heise, the film makers, discover the cinematic qualities of shooting outdoors in a natural location. The location in the case appears to be someone's backyard, with a tall wooden fence and a neighboring house visible in the background. This brings me to the part which I find so utterly hilarious-the idea of such a fantastic performance being recorded by the cinematic medium, then in the earliest stages of its infancy, against such a seemingly "normal" backdrop.

Edison films like this one are, of course, also a great reminder of the tremendously diverse kinds of entertainment audiences had available to them at the turn of the last century. Watching Juan Caceido seemingly effortlessly bouncing off the wire, while keeping his balance with a pole, and performing complex somersaults, is a spectacle to see. One can only imagine what other spectators must have thought.

Above all, it's a fun reminder of the joy, energy and even cinematic fervor that can be found in even a little film like this. Dickson undoubtedly shot the film outdoors for purely practical reasons (the act was too complex to shoot inside the Black Maria's confined space). Yet, whether or not he fully realized it, he was tapping in to the same kind of effects that "real" locations provide which Louis Lumiere would really take to new heights the following year (the moving leaves in the background of "August Lumiere and Baby" from 1895 captured audiences' attention as much as any of the staged foreground action).

While "Caceido with Pole" is hardly a groundbreaking film in any real sense, it nevertheless presents, for perhaps the first time in the American cinema, the qualities of outdoor shooting that countless directors have explored since.